Levon Helm Band

These once informal gatherings have taken on mythic, perhaps even religious, importance as fans and musicians continue to make the pilgrimage to Levons Midnight Rambles. In fact, theres little that can be done to add to the joy of seeing Levon in what can only be described as the ultimate setting for live music. However, the addition of My Morning Jacket as the opening act is one thing that managed to elevate the experience on a recent Saturday in October.

Having attended a few Rambles over the years, we were uncertain as to how My Morning Jacket would approach their set, given the intimate confines of Levons post and beam studio. However, this question was answered before the show even began as an all out soundcheck of “Im Amazed” filtered through the woods to our car a ΒΌ mile away, where we sat anxiously waiting for the gates to open.

Once My Morning Jacket took the stage some two hours later, they thrilled and amazed the packed studio with a 10-song set that included tracks from each of their five studio albums. The mellow opener, “Golden,” was followed by plugged in versions of “Im Amazed,” “The Way That He Sings,” and “Gideon” that tested the structural integrity of Levons barn. The magnificent pairing of Jim Jamess angelic voice with the pastoral setting was perhaps most evident on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” a song that will be included on the bands next LP. My Morning Jacket closed their set with the anthem, “One Big Holiday,” which left the crowd incredulous that what had just concluded was merely the opening act.

After a brief intermission that allowed time to retrieve beverages from the car, and sample some of the offerings at the potluck style food spread, Levon took the stage and seemed determined not to be out done in his own home. Although his singing is limited to select songs as result of a recent procedure to remove a nonmalignant tumor from his vocal chords, Levon opened with a raucous “Opehlia” that showcased the emotion and depth of his voice. Throughout their almost three-hour set, members of The Levon Helm Band traded lead vocals, bringing a different sound to each song. Teresa Williams stepped up front for the oft-covered Lefty Frizzell song, “Long Black Veil.” Later in the evening, Donald Fagen took the lead on a brilliant rendition of The Grateful Deads “Shakedown Street.” One of the nights most memorable moments came when Jim James was invited back to the stage to sing the part of Rick Danko on “It Makes No Difference”, a song that My Morning Jacket had recorded for the 2007 tribute album, Endless Highway (Thankfully, recording devices are prohibited from use at The Midnight Ramble, but below is a video from a similar collaboration at this years Outside Lands Festival).

The level of talent that Levon surrounds himself with is almost surreal, and their set would do well as a crash course on the history of American music. However, the enormity of Levons presence commands the attention of the audience, which included the members of My Morning Jacket who were gathered behind his drum kit. Levons nimble drumming leaves no doubt that he deserves the title, the greatest drummer, that was once bestowed upon him by Ringo Starr. The fact that Levons singing is limited, gives those rare moments when he does sing an enormous sense of gravity. Subsequently, the crowd of roughly 250 people was awe struck when Levon retook the microphone for a haunting version of Bob Dylans “Blind Willie McTell.” The evening concluded as it traditionally does with a version of “The Weight,” which on this night included all the members of My Morning Jacket. Jim James took the opening verse, while Levon offered his vocals on “go down Miss Moses.” Its hard to imagine a better pairing of vocal talents, and a more perfect end to an extraordinary evening of music.

Hours earlier, during My Morning Jackets set, Jim James expressed a prescient sentiment that accurately reflected how I believe everyone in the audience felt as the show ended, and night gave way to morning. He said “Can you believe were all here? To say its an honor would be an understatement.”

Jim James with The Levon Helm Band – It Makes No Difference (Live at Outside Lands)

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Levon Helms and My Morning Jacket Concert Poster

“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble,” Helm told Scorsese. With young children off the premises, the show resumed: “the songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.”

When Levon Helm, the legendary singer and drummer of The Band, was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, the initial treatment suggested by his oncologist was to surgically remove his vocal chords. Luckily for us all, he immediately sought a second opinion from Sloan Kettering hospital and decided instead to pursue radiation treatment. Over the next five weeks, he endured 28 intensive sessions of radiation therapy, during which he was strapped down to a bed while doctors shot waves through three holes in his throat. The prognosis was that his vocal chords might not recover, and he was left mute for a considerable time. With enormous medical bills and unable to even speak, Levon admits it was a dark time, but making music was a way for him to confront his struggle. Reflecting on this period in a CBS interview Levon said, “Trying to make music is the best thing for pain, sadness, you know.” Well, it turns out making music not only helped him confront the pain, but also led to a second act in his career.

The Levon Helm Midnight Rambles began in 2005 as informal musical gatherings in Levons home studio in Woodstock, NY. The idea for the rambles arose because of the need to pay off his medical debts. As Levon explains, “And then after I got sick I needed money, I couldn’t take a job. So we started puttin’ on little mini concerts here inside the studio.” Gathering together an assortment of local and NYC-based musicians, word of the Rambles quickly spread and soon enough they were packing the house every Saturday night. Miraculously, Levons voice slowly emerged from its slumber and by 2006 his voice was back to about 70%.

Eventually, Levon recruited Larry Campbell, a veteran producer and multi-instrumentalist who played in Bob Dylans band from 1997 to 2004, as bandleader. After playing together for a while, they began to consider recording an album. The resulting album, Dirt Farmer, was released in 2007 to critical acclaim and won The Levon Helm Band their first of two Grammy awards. Levons daughter, Amy Helm, Larrys wife, Teresa Williams, Jimmy Weider (The Band’s last guitarist), Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Brian Mitchell, Erik Lawrence, Steven Bernstein, Little Sammy Davis and more recently Donald Fagen of Steely Dan have been regular members of The Levon Helm Band.

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